It's Time to Talk about Power
This Sunday, thousands of pastors will prepare for worship. Some of them will wear distinctive clothing—the albs and stoles of liturgical churches echo ancient priestly garments. But many more pastors will wear nothing that marks them out as different from their congregations.
Walk into many of our churches today, especially the ones that are growing fastest and spreading their influence widest, and you could never pick the pastors out of the crowd.
Except, perhaps, for one difference.
Backstage, the pastors have stood quietly while assistants invest them with one single marker of spiritual authority. Looped over their ear is a wireless microphone, mounted with a flexible boom that comes in four different colors to match the range of human skin tones. The microphone itself is 2.5 millimeters in diameter. It is so small you can easily miss it at a distance of more than a few feet. It is, in fact, so small because it is designed to be hidden.
Not every preacher, to be sure, uses this kind of earpiece. In many Pentecostal churches, the microphone itself becomes a valuable prop, held aloft or pulled close to the lips or, at moments of maximum intensity, held a foot away from the mouth to avoid overdriving the speakers. In these settings the microphone is used to deliver sonic force, to tangibly amplify the voice of the preacher. It becomes an instrument in its own right, part of the preacher's panoply of rhetorical power.
But in many churches, the wireless headset sets a very different tone. Its goal is not volume—it is intimacy. An audience of thousands hears not the thundering strains of a dramatically amplified voice; instead, they are able to hear a single person speaking as if that person was talking directly to them, face to face, friend to friend.
A top-quality wireless headset requires both electric power (fresh batteries, hundreds of watts of amplification) and technological power (meticulously designed circuits, expertly equalized sound). And it delivers extraordinary social power—the ability to address thousands with one-to-one familiarity. But once all that power is switched on, a good wireless headset is meant to disappear.
As a frequent speaker, I am grateful for wireless headsets' natural sound, ease, and informality. As a Protestant Christian, I am grateful for the trajectory from the unapproachable altar to the torn veil, the priestly caste to the priesthood of all believers.
But as one who frequently wears what I have come to call the Wireless Headset of Authority, I have begun to worry that it is not just our microphones that are becoming invisible. What is also becoming invisible, especially to those with the most to gain and to lose, is power.
High Power, Low Power
Anthropologist Geert Hofstede coined the phrase "power distance" to describe the ways that some cultures prefer that the powerful look and act powerful. In high power distance cultures, power is made visible and tangible, and dramatic differences in power are seen as a natural, indeed crucial, part of a healthy society.
In low power distance cultures, on the other hand, visible hierarchy and signs of power are discouraged. Those with power are expected to treat others as equals, not as subordinates. Charles Tidwell, who has taught Hofstede's power distance concepts, summarizes it nicely: In high power distance societies, "powerful people try to look as powerful as possible." But in low power distance societies, "powerful people try to look less powerful than they are."